Monday, June 22, 2015

Tears of Rage, Tears of Grief... We're So Low and Life is Brief.
Wednesday morning I went to the 9:00am mass at Church of the Resurrection in Eugene, Oregon, which I am visiting to celebrate my sister's graduation from graduate school at the University of Oregon. It's been a wonderful trip so far, but the service was especially nice, as part of the purpose was for me to receive my father into the Fellowship of St. John on behalf of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. I was particularly impressed by the depth of theological knowledge held by the 10 or so gathered for the service. During the time for the homily the celebrant invited people to share their thoughts or questions about our readings of the day. One of the ladies present had a question about God's anger, and asked whether God actually got angry or whether that was part of our attempt to personify God. It's a good question, and while I don't remember the exact words used, one of the other ladies there offered a thoughtful and excellent response to the question of God's anger. 

I don't think any of us could have known how appropriate that question would become in only a few hours time. 

It is often said that when a beloved child of God dies (and we are all beloved of God) that God is the first to shed a tear. I believe that to be true. What I don't think I believe is that those are always tears of sadness. Sadness does not cause one to blot out the sun for three hours at the death of Christ. Sadness does not lead to the world's destruction by water. Sadness does not lead to the casting down of Satan and his angels for treason, insubordination, and hubris. Sadness is not the appropriate response to the violence done to God's children in Charleston.

I believe when something like this happens that God is the first to shed a tear, but I do not think God’s first tears are tears of sadness, but are instead tears of rage.

Sadness comes, as it always does after these horrific massacres, drop by drop into our hearts, cooling the anger into pain and grief, but when something like this brutal murder of people studying the bible happens, our first reaction is rage.  

We rage at the injustice of it all. We rage at the loss of what we hoped were safe spaces. We rage at the damnable ignorance and hate and malicious evil that leads someone to presume it is their right to murder peaceful people, people who welcomed him in, because their skin cells produce a bit more melanin than his own. We rage at the ignorance of the ideals of our nation, that every person is created equal. 

There are two truths that have become so blindingly obvious over the last few months that they can no longer be denied.  We have in our country a serious issue with the way we handle race and a serious issue with violence, particularly gun violence. 

In spite of the fact that our nation’s gun violence rate is astoundingly high, higher-than-any-other-developed-country high, significantly-higher-even-than-other-developed-countries-that-have-high-rates-of-gun-ownership high, this is not a policy position paper on gun control.  

Rather, this is about rage.  It’s about the rage of the disenfranchised and threatened. It’s about the rage of those who suffer the loss of loved ones, the loss of dignity, the loss of their humanity.  It’s about the rage of those who suffer because their very existence is, in the mind of many, “taking over the country”.  It’s about the rage God feels over our inability to respect the dignity of every human being. 

And for those of us who are white, that rage comes perhaps most of all at the destruction of our ability to pretend that everything is fine.

We like to see ourselves, particularly in the hyper-developed west, as enlightened individuals who live by the ideals of liberty, freedom, and democracy. We like to think not only that all are created equal, but that all are offered equal opportunity, that people are not constantly and systematically discriminated against, and that those who fail do so through their own faults.  We like to think that we are an egalitarian meritocracy, where the good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them.  We like to think that when the police arrest someone, it’s because they deserved to be arrested for something. 

But pretending that is true is why we are in the situation we are in.  Our inability to see our own brokenness, our inability to look in the mirror and see what is wrong with our society is quite literally killing people.  Dylan Roof was arrested while armed in Shelby, NC, without incident, less than 24 hours after brutally murdering nine people who had welcomed him into their Bible study.  Twelve year old Tamir Rice, who was black, was shot and killed less than two seconds after police arrived on the scene, in spite of the fact that he was just a kid playing in a park with a toy gun.  After a massive biker gang shootout in Waco left nine dead and 18 wounded, police made arrests without incident.  Eric Garner, who was black, was strangled to death for selling loose cigarettes.  I went to church on Wednesday and left alive.  Nine of my brothers and sisters in faith did not, and they did not because they were black.   

Our rage at these shootings is not simply over the violence inflicted yet again upon black bodies, but also at the puncturing of our own self identity as people and as a society who are above such mean and petty things such as racial discrimination or gun violence. Events such as this force into our view the fact that, for some reason, we live in the only developed country in the world where shootings like this take place on a regular basis.  It reminds us that we live in a place where one segment of the population bears the disproportionately large brunt of violence inflicted by our society, both violence inflicted by the state and violence inflicted by other citizens. It forces us to confront the fact that 15% of our country live their lives in constant fear that they'll get gunned down for not being polite enough in a traffic stop, for playing in their yard, for walking down the street of their own neighborhood. It reminds us that for all of our ideals, we can't honestly tell a young black man that if he does everything right he’ll be left alone and given the benefit of the doubt by other members of society and by those who enforce order.  

This isn’t about blaming police.  In fact, it is not about the police at all.  It’s about you and me, fellow caucasians. It is about you and me needing to recognize the poison that we breathe in every day but don’t see, this is about us needing to be aware at the water we swim in, needing to recognize that our deeply ingrained, deeply consequential cultural racism, and our deeply ingrained, deeply consequential obsession with violence are very, very real. And most importantly, it’s about recognizing the part we play in fostering those systems.   

If we respond to these constant spree killings, these constant rampages, these patterns of violence with indifference, with numbness, with a simple “Pray for the victims” and move on, then we contribute in a very real way to the systems that ensure that these killings will keep happening.  The only way for us to change this is to channel our rage into something productive.  

Society doesn’t like change.  In fact, we once had to fight a war over whether people who had a certain amount of skin pigment were even human or whether they were property.  Our culture will put everything it has into not changing.  Listen to the news in the wake of these murders.  There are people trying to frame it as an attack on Christianity.  There are people who are saying the killer was a troubled and confused young man.  They are the same people who referred to Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old guilty of nothing more than walking through his own neighborhood, as a thug. Entrenched cultural and societal forces, both conscious and subconscious ones, will do all they can to ensure the paradigm doesn’t shift, particularly since people are realizing more and more just how charged this moment is.

We, especially those of us who are white, are holding a stick of dynamite, and the fuse has been lit.  Option one is to keep doing what we’ve been doing.  We can hold that stick of dynamite and act like the fuse hasn’t been lit and carry on as if the grave sin of racism isn’t real until it blows up in our hands, leaving our souls and spirits too gravely damaged to go on.  This would be an undoing of our own account.  We could continue claiming our supremacy over all others living in “our” country and keep telling people to know their place.  We could keep hurting ourselves by continuing to exclude people of color, women, or other minorities from the table for fear that our place of prominence and privilege may be challenged.  We can maintain our hegemony, but the hate and discrimination we inflict will poison us until we can no longer recognize ourselves in the mirror. We could preserve the status quo, but in the end we harm ourselves almost as much as those against whom we discriminate.

Or we could take all that stick of dynamite, that power, all that energy, all that force, and use it to break ourselves free of the bonds we have placed on ourselves and our society.  We could channel our efforts into justice rather than platitudes.  We could call each other out on our unhealthy tendencies and subtle, even unconscious, racism.  For once we could sit down and listen to our neighbors and friends, sit and listen while people of color talk about what their experience is and allow ourselves to be shocked at how much different it is than ours.  We could allow ourselves to be changed.  We could allow ourselves to be followers of Christ, who himself saw fit to lay down the power he had so that he could live in communion and unity with us.

In that Bible Study I attended Wednesday, everyone agreed that there are times God does get angry.  I’m glad that they saw that, because I think one of the worst tendencies of Christianity is to make God into some sort of cuddly celestial stuffed animal who makes us feel better about ourselves.  But I believe that God gets angry just as we do.  I believe God was wroth as Dylan Roof fired shot after shot after shot into people who had welcomed him in the name of Christ.  And I believe that God will be wroth at our obstinance if we fail to see the roles we play as members of a society in which this was not an isolated incident by a disturbed man, but something that happens more than once a month.

The call of a Christian life is that of sacrifice and love.  It is time for us to sacrifice our positions of safety and privilege.  It is time for us to sacrifice our love of the recreational use of the machinery of death.  And it is time for us to demonstrate our love for our brothers and sisters by getting angry at the violence and discrimination they face, and by harnessing that righteous anger and working alongside them to build a more just and equitable world.      

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